NT going backwards on black deaths in custody

Emma Murphy Green Left Weekly 5 July 2013

The Northern Territory's new mandatory alcohol treatment law came into effect on July 1.

Now, anyone taken into protective custody for drunkenness three times in two months can be referred to three months' mandatory rehabilitation in a secure facility. People who "repeatedly abscond" from forced treatment could face criminal charges.

The laws - which are part of the radical alcohol reforms the Country Liberal Party promised when it won the election in August last year - have been widely condemned by medical, legal and social justice advocates, who fear they will disproportionately affect Aboriginal people and could lead to higher rates of imprisonment.

Shock facts on Aboriginal people and Australian prisons:
  • The proportion of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled in the 20 years since the Royal Commission.
  • In 2011, Aboriginal people made up 2.5% of the Australian population. They accounted for 46.2% of all youth in juvenile custody and 26.1% of total adult prison population.
  • In the NT, Aboriginal people made up 30.3% of the total population, 96.9% of the juvenile detention population and 82.3 % of the adult prison population.
  • 53% of Indigenous deaths in prison custody were caused by illness such as heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness. This compares to 39% of non-Indigenous deaths.

Source: Deaths in custody in Australia to 30 June 2011

Priscilla Collins from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) said in May: "This is a major step backwards. The government has learnt nothing from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That warned against criminalising drunkenness and emphasised diversion from police custody. The government is doing exactly the opposite."

Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, told Green Left Weekly that, while in some cases of extreme alcoholism people may need to be forced into treatment, he was concerned that alcohol in the NT was being treated as a criminal issue rather than a public health problem.

"All these chronic alcoholics are virtually spoon-fed: all the animal bars in Alice Springs open from 9am, then turf them out at 12, when they're already drunk - then they go for takeaways," he said. "How do you tackle this issue when alcohol is so easy to get?"

The report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, released in 1991, recommended the decriminalising of public drunkenness, as a way to reduce contact between Aboriginal people and police.

Jackson pointed to the example of Kwementyaye Briscoe, a young man who died in the Alice Springs lock-up in January last year. After being taken into protective custody for being drunk, he was thrown onto the floor by police officers, hitting his head, and was left in his cell without medical attention. Three hours later he was found dead.

"Mr Briscoe was put into protective custody 31 times for being drunk. At one point, didn't someone say 'This guy's got a problem - it's a health problem.'? No, they don't care ... they just keep locking them up, and then they die."

In May this year, the Australian Institute of Criminology National Deaths in Custody Program, released its monitoring report for statistics up to June 2011 - 20 years since the
commission handed down its findings and recommendations. The monitoring report gives a damning assessment of progress made - or not made - since the historic inquiry into alarming rates of Aboriginal people dying in prison.

One of the key aims of the commission's recommendations was to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates. But the monitoring report found that Aboriginal incarceration rates are at a record high. The proportion of Aboriginal prisoners has almost doubled since 1991.

When the commission released its report, Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to be locked up than non-Aboriginal people. In 2011, they were 15 times more likely to be locked up.

The federal government responded to the findings on May 24: "The Australian government has welcomed today's National Deaths in Custody Program Monitoring Report findings that death-in-custody rates have decreased significantly in the past decade."

But this is a particularly twisted interpretation of the statistics. As ABC Online reported the same day: "Overall the rate of Aboriginal people dying in jail has fallen since the landmark deaths in custody report was released 20 years ago. But the number of deaths is still higher, simply because there are so many more Aborigines in jail."

Jackson, however, is concerned that too much focus on the falling rates of deaths in custody ignores the massive failure in a duty of care to people in custody.

"I have argued against the idea that the only reason there's a high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander death rate is because of their high numbers in jail. To me doesn't wash," he said. "There's still a lack of duty of care."

The justice spokesperson for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, Tammy Solonec, described the situation as an international epidemic. "We lock up more Aboriginal people in Australia than any other one race of people that gets locked up," ABC Online reported her as saying.

Aboriginal people made up 2.5% of the Australian population in 2011, but accounted for 26.1% of adults in prison. But these figures get worse in particular areas, such as the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Solonec said: "It's no coincidence that they're also the jurisdictions with the toughest laws, they have mandatory sentencing and other states and territories don't."

In the NT, Aboriginal people make up 30.3% of the population, 82.3% of the adult prison population and a shocking 96.9% of the juvenile detention policy - and these figures are from before the mandatory alcohol treatment laws were introduced.

Jonathon Hunyor from NAAJA responded to the report saying: "The central message of this report is the same as the central message of the royal commission over 20 years [ago].
"If we want to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody we need to reduce the number of Aboriginal people we are locking up and unfortunately in the Northern Territory we are going in absolutely the opposite direction."

The statistics tell a story, and it is a continuing story of racism that we find at so many levels of Australian society. From governments introducing laws that will lead to more Aboriginal people being locked up and a culture within the police force that leads to people such as Kwementyaye Briscoe in the Northern Territory and Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island, Queensland, dying violently in police custody.

But the statistics are a broader indictment on how far we have to go as a society before Aboriginal people see justice. Aboriginal prisoners are dying younger than non-Aboriginal prisoners, and they are now also dying for different reasons.

At the time of the commission, hanging was the main cause of death. Twenty years later, Aboriginal people are dying of serious illnesses, such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer - diseases that take so many relatively young Aboriginal people across Australia.

Jackson told GLW: "Everybody should know that Aboriginal people have chronic health problems. And yet, when they go into custody, that understanding seems to go out the window. The idea that they should be looked after, that there is a duty of care, is forgotten.

"Given the chronic health issues Aboriginal people face, and the fact that generally people in prison suffer higher rates of illness, you'd think there'd be an understanding not to cut funding to custodial health. Another of the commission's recommendations was that people in custody should get the same level of healthcare as they would if not in custody. That is clearly not happening."

It is not until we look broader that we get a fuller picture of the levels of institutional neglect and discrimination Aboriginal people face, and begin to understand the context that leads to such appalling statistics.

Another landmark report in the history of Australia since invasion was the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, which examined the damage done by the government policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families.

The policy officially ended in the 1970s, but Bringing them Home was not just about the past. Paddy Gibson recently reported in the UK Guardian: "The report's concluding chapters raised dire warning that the operations of contemporary child protection agencies were replicating many of the destructive dynamics of the stolen generations era."

Jackson said: "Bringing Them Home is an example of why things are how they are. The stolen generations is a very instrumental example of the trauma around which Aboriginal people have had to build their lives, the reason why they are turning to alcohol and other such things."

Meanwhile, ongoing controlling policies such as the NT intervention, now known as "Stronger Futures", are continuing to disempower communities and smother Aboriginal people, some of whom are driven to drugs and alcohol which in turn lead to destructive cycles that end up with prison sentences.

It is incumbent upon all of us that we stand side by side with Aboriginal people, and against the government policies that bear down on them, and demand a better future, one that Jackson insists much be built on "sovereignty, treaty and social justice - until then, all these problems will continue, and will probably get worse."

From GLW issue 971